For a little while in the early 1980s, my dad was on the cutting edge of technology. Mind you, this is a man who prided himself on being early to the “grunge look” in the mid-’90s simply because corduroys, flannel and layers were and still are his usual garb — he knew if he waited around long enough it would be in fashion. He still clings to his AOL account and has trouble using Google if he doesn’t get there from AOL first. But still, for a little while, he was right there on the cutting edge. My evidence for this is the Kaypro II which graced our dining room table for stretches of 1984 and ‘85.
The Kaypro II was not the first but the second “portable computer.” I use that term loosely, of course. It was more portable than the average PC at the time, by virtue of its being encased in a heavy-gauge aluminum box with a handle on the back. To use it, you would unclip two latches to reveal the keyboard in the sort of lid that hinged down, while the nine-inch black-and-green screen (large for its time!) and two 5-1/4″ floppy drives — one for the operating system, the other for a program. My dad had purchased it a year or two earlier for his fledgling PR firm, and when we moved to the new house in ‘84 it didn’t make it to his office right away.
I had already seen a couple of larger computers — or “mainframes” — at school, so my dad let me play around with the Kaypro a little, just for fun. Because this thing was so rugged, there was little damage I could have done, short of mangling the OS floppy disc or pouring juice into the keyboard — although even that might not have done anything serious.
It came to pass that the Kaypro had a couple of games. (I nearly called them videogames, but seeing as how the Kaypro II was capable only of text, the term just doesn’t seem right.) I’m certain there was more than one, but the only one I recall ever playing was Zork. Zork was special because in the limited pantheon of the handful of games my dad had, it was the only one that had a flashy intro. And by flashy, I mean whoever programmed it had a sense of humor. The green all-caps writing on the screen told me I was in a large, dark cavern, and nearby there was a lantern. And then I would get killed by something. Usually a “grue.”
Early adopters who remember Zork might be saying, “Wait, that’s not how it started!” They’d be right, as the standard version of Zork began with a house and mailbox with a leaflet and all that. But not my version. The game must have been supplied by my uncle, who was an ubergeek and an amateur- soon to become professional- computer programmer. My guess is that he’d hacked the game to skip the perfunctory introduction to get to the good stuff. (You could do that in those days — just open up the code and mess around. All it took was some basic programming knowledge.) While that may have been great for him, it sucked for me. Without a leaflet explaining, however vaguely, what was going on, and without much idea of what I was supposed to accomplish, I never got very far. If I didn’t pick up the lantern quickly enough, I’d be eaten by a grue! Even if I did grab the lantern, chances were high that I’d be killed upon my first encounter with a troll. I don’t think I ever got farther than a few steps down the trail before dying.
Despite the game being nearly impossible, I was fascinated. My parents probably relished the hour or two that the game held me spellbound, trying to comprehend what was going on on screen. A couple years later when I received my first personal computer as my sixth grade graduation gift (another obscure model: the Laser 128, an Apple IIc clone — this time with an *amber* screen), I got some games with it, including a football game and chess, but they just didn’t hold the same appeal.
The Laser was relegated to word processor duty most of the time, and was mostly abandoned in favor of my mom’s new Windows computer and something called AOL by the time I got to high school. But those hours spent staring at a green screen, trying to figure out which way to walk that wouldn’t get me murdered immediately… I’m really tempted to go dig the old Kaypro out of my parents’ basement and fire Zork up for one last time. Now the Internet can help me keep from being eaten.
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